Sugar and Spice and Daytime Vice: the Two Worlds of Susan Lucci And—Gasp!—Erica Kane
ERICA: Not everyone's born beautiful. I happen to be one of the lucky ones.
SILVER: Do you think there's hope for me?
ERICA: You just have to be willing to make the effort. Haven't you learned anything from watching me?
"Oh, boy! The first time I see the script and say these things out loud in the morning, I'm on the floor laughing," says Susan Lucci, 33, who plays Erica Kane, the narcissistic villainess of ABC's All My Children, which recently overtook the same network's General Hospital to become, again, America's most-watched soap. Her lines may be incredible, but by 4 p.m., when rehearsals are over and the camera starts rolling, Susan has pumped conviction into Erica's patter. "Erica is just trying to help people," defends Susan. "She's honest when she's saying those awful things. And every time I think Erica has gone too far, I meet somebody just like her."
The power that daily transforms Lucci from a nice Italian-Swedish Catholic suburban wife and mother into the manipulative Manhattan model Erica Kane, says AMC creator Agnes Nixon, is "her talent. She's got a fix on the character." That fix costs ABC an annual salary (approximately $500,000 a year, according to one source) that is believed to be the highest in all soapdom. She may be worth every penny. Nixon gives Lucci more than a smidgen of the credit for AMC's regaining the ratings lead it lost to General Hospital three years ago. "Our male viewership is up in the last five years," Nixon says, "and Susie helps with that."
Lucci herself calls AMC "the class act of daytime," with fans everywhere from the Junior League to the major leagues. Yankee catcher Rick Cerone once surprised her on the set with a baseball autographed by the team. "I never knew why anybody wanted an autograph until that moment," she says. Other aficionados are Carol Burnett, Cheryl Tiegs, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd. Says Susan: "I've heard that on the women's tennis circuit, a lot of pros won't play at 1 p.m. if they can avoid it."
Erica and Susan have been sharing the same impeccable skin since AMC's debut 12 years ago, and the fit is surprisingly comfortable. "As a teenager, I used to be like Erica," says Lucci. "I wasn't the deepest thinker in the world. I judged people on a superficial level." She began to change when her drama teacher at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N.Y. "did an imitation of me onstage, and I saw immediately there was a lot of room for improvement." The metamorphosis into the patient and pleasant Susan Lucci, she says, "was just a matter of growing up and mellowing. I used to be opinionated. Now I'm sort of a marshmallow."
The daughter of a construction contractor and a retired registered nurse, Susan was brought up in Garden City, Long Island and still lives not far from her parents. Her only sibling (brother Jimmy, now a management consultant) was six years older, so Susan spent hours alone, "watching The Guiding Light on television and playing with my mother's long black gloves and purple alligator shoes." At 11, Susan got her first role, as a Cinderella type in a Girl Scout play, and learned that "I felt totally at home onstage. First I get these butterflies, then I start to perform and I feel great." After college Susan found an agent, made a movie that was never released, and landed an interview at ABC which immediately brought her the role of Erica, then a teenager, in the first episode of All My Children.
Three months before her big break, Susan married Helmut Huber, now 44, a tall, upbeat Austrian she had met at the Garden City Hotel when he was the food and beverage manager and she was a summer waitress. Three years passed before Helmut began his gentle but firm pursuit, while she played hard to get.
At the time, says Lucci, "I didn't want to get married. I was so fickle, always the girl at the party who was looking over her date's shoulder for somebody better." "But she couldn't do that after she met me," notes Huber, who's 6'2" to Lucci's 5'2". Early on, says Lucci, "I made Helmut promise he'd never come home to me just out of habit. Some stories say I've stayed married to him for 13 years out of some sense of duty because I'm so good. Actually, I'm lucky I've found someone who keeps me interested."
Huber, who is negotiating to open his own restaurant in Manhattan, to be called Erica's, lives with Lucci in a 14-room, 60-year-old Colonial 20 miles outside of New York. Their daughter, Liza, 7, "skis like the wind and speaks two languages [English and German]," says Susan. Much to her mother's dismay, Liza also loves to watch All My Children. "I don't like her to see me in bed with somebody," frets Susan. "I don't like her to see anybody in bed with anybody." Their son, Andreas, 2, is a merry strawberry blond "who goes around singing all day." A governess tends the children when Lucci works (an average of four days a week), and a live-in housekeeper does the cleaning, shopping and some cooking. "I tried to be Superwoman for nine years," says Lucci, "and it was stupid. I was always tired, always behind. So I hired myself a wife." Susan still lays out the children's clothes each morning and posts the day's menus on the refrigerator. Helmut often drives her to work in his Mercedes convertible; around town she drives her own Cadillac. This summer they bought a four-bedroom contemporary house with a pool in Long Island's tony Hamptons.
Though Lucci thinks the Erica role is "spectacular," she is also frankly restless after 12 years in her first job. "It's been a way to have it both ways for me, to really be with my children most of every week and to work as an actress," says Lucci. Nonetheless, with only a year and a half left to go on her current contract, she is cautiously testing other waters. She had a cameo in the recent movie Young Doctors in Love and has signed to star in the upcoming Gung Ho. "In 10 years," she says, "I'd like to be making a film a year, and we'd like to have a small hotel in the Alps."
She yearns to play other "women of spirit," but they needn't be villainesses. "Actually, if I never do anybody but Erica Kane, I will have accomplished something," says Lucci. "After all, she has said almost everything there is to say."
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